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Stairways of Life The terraces of Yunnan

IT was late October - a joyous time when many rice farmers were reaping their harvests. Together with a group of farmers from southwest China's Yunnan Province, I went to the southern and southeastern parts of the province to study how the locals grow rice.

The Xinping Yi and Dai Autonomous County lies in southern Yunnan, around 180 kilometers from the provincial capital of Kunming. The Dai minority people here are able to grow two crops of rice in a year. As the fields are filled with water for such long periods, they provide the perfect environment to practice an age-old method of farming: the raising of fish in paddy fields.

Raising fish in rice fields goes back a long way in China. It is said that farmers along the Nanxi River in Zhejiang Province were already using this technique as early as 1,700 years ago during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220?280).

A common perception is that this was simply a way for farmers to supplement their income. In fact, this traditional technique was really an ingenious way of farming that eliminates the need for weeding and pesticides.

In the village of Gasa in Xinping County, officials from the local agricultural authority are promoting this eco-friendly method of pest control in a big way.

This technique reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as the fish feed on both weeds and pests, while providing natural fertilizer in the form of fish droppings - a win-win situation for the farmers.

According to Du Hanbin of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences, raising fish in paddy fields has led to a significant reduction in weeds and pests. This has obvious economic benefits for the farmers, who can reduce expenditure on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Their crops and fish can be marketed as organic products, which fetch better prices. There are no chemical fertilizers and pesticides that could contaminate water resources and endanger the health of farmers and consumers.

In addition, there is an obvious benefit for the farmers: They can eat the fish to improve their own diet.

In China, these farming techniques are once again getting the recognition they deserve. Another example is the initiative by the Ministry of Agriculture to promote raising ducks in paddies.

During the spring plowing season, ducks can be released into the fields after the seedlings have been transplanted. When the rice plants flower, it is time to remove the ducks.

The ducks feed on weeds and pests, and their droppings provide an excellent organic fertilizer. The pecking actions of the ducks also aerate the soil and stimulate the growth of the seedlings. Like the fish, these ducks provide an all-in-one solution for weeding, removing pests and fertilizing the fields. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are no longer required; fields and water resources are kept clean.

Raising ducks in paddy fields has a long history in China, but the technique was also once considered backward and fell into disuse. The earliest documented use of this method was in 1597 by a man from Fujian Province named Chen Jinglun, who experimented with ducks to control pests. However, with the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides after World War II, using ducks was abandoned.

In the last decade, scholars and experts have proposed measures to make agriculture more eco-friendly. This movement has seen a revival in the practice of raising ducks in paddy fields.

Hani miracle

Our convoy traveled steep mountain roads to reach the Ailao Mountains in southern Yunnan. As we entered the area, we were greeted by a majestic sight: the terraced fields of the Hani people.

The Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture is known for its vast expanse of terraces. Of these, the most magnificent are the 11,000 hectares of terraces in Yuanyang County.

As this county is mountainous, the Hani people could only cultivate crops on the slopes. The size of the fields ranges from a few hectares to a few square meters; and their height can range from 2,000 meters near the mountain tops to just 140 meters around the foot of the mountains.

Fields of all shapes and sizes cover the mountain slopes. Under the sun and mist, these rice terraces are an ever-changing display of colors that shift with the seasons and even within a day are "a most spectacular painting," as many have said.

Rice terraces can be found in many places - such as Africa, North America, Japan and the Philippines - but perhaps only the terraces of the Hani people could be considered a miracle. This has much to do with geography.

The topography of Yunnan Province is unique - high in the northwest and low in the southeast. The altitude ranges from 3,000 meters to 400?500 meters above sea level, forming a three-dimensional climate system that spans cold temperate, subtropical and tropical climatic zones. The Ailao Mountains encompass the complex ecosystems and biodiversity of the province.

The high mountains and deep valleys in Yuanyang County are the result of years of erosion by the Red River. The average annual temperature ranges from 25 degrees Celsius by the river to 11.6 degrees in the mountains, a difference of 13.4 degrees. The air around the river is dry and warm due to high evaporation rates, while the mountains are damp and humid due to heavy mist.

This has created a unique weather pattern. Water vapor from the valleys rises to the mountains and condenses to form fog and rain, which then falls and feeds the rivers. This endless cycle provides a continuous supply of water for the rice terraces.

In Yuanyang County, more than 60,000 hectares of forests act as natural reservoirs. They absorb and store water vapor that rises from the rivers to form new rivers, springs, pools and waterfalls, all providing much-needed water.

The Hani people have a folk song that goes: "Good forests bring good water; good water leads to good fields; good fields make possible good generations." This reflects the Hani philosophy on the environment and their source of livelihood. They respect this ecological cycle, and this belief is immortalized in a folk song that is passed down the generations.

Enlightened ties

Looking at Yuanyang from afar, one can see mountain tops clad in lush forests; below are mushroom-shaped houses; below these are rice terraces; further down are rivers. Why did the Hani people choose to plan their land this way?

This has to do with the source of water. Take a closer look - embedded between the terraces are irrigation canals. The Hani people dig canals and ditches close to the water source in the upper half of the mountains, and channel the water through these canals to the terraces below.

The forests high in the mountains collect mist, dew and rain. These flow into 4,600 canals encircling the mountains. Water runs down the mountains, irrigates the terraces, and flows to the rivers below. As water evaporates from the rivers, it completes the never-ending cycle in this agro-ecosystem.

That is why the Hani people choose to build their houses midway up the mountains, close to the forests and their source of water, and build their terraces below their houses. They may not know the science behind this, but they have managed to live in harmony with nature by following the traditional wisdom passed down from their forefathers.

The Hani people have a clever way of fertilizing their fields. In the forest, a thick layer of leaf litter, animal droppings and decaying material covers the forest floor, forming a fertile layer of humus. Every year during the rainy season, when the rice plants are flowering, the rain washes the nutrient-rich humus from the forest through the irrigation canals into the fields. Farmers use their hands to shovel this humus onto crops.

The Hani use another natural fertilizer. In every village there is a large cesspit, where manure and biodegradable waste are dumped. The waste is left to decompose and be used as fertilizer. In spring when rice seedlings are transplanted, water is directed from the mountains to the cesspit to wash the fertilizer into the fields. This is such a green and effortless way of fertilizing the fields - it's hard to think of a better way.

Rice terraces need water, and forests are needed to provide the water. The Hani people plant trees along their canals to protect water sources. To the Hani, the forests are considered sacred; people and livestock are usually not allowed to enter. According to tradition, when a baby is born, the parents plant three trees near the forests and bury the placenta under the trees. Another folk song describes the importance of forests to the community.

Similar practices are found in other farming communities in Yunnan, where protecting the environment is part of everyday life and religion. For instance, the Naxi (Nakhi) people in Lijiang hold an annual ceremony to worship the heavens and make sacrifices to the forest spirits. In Xishuangbanna, there are 400 such "sacred" mountains where people and livestock are barred. These beliefs have ingrained in people the need to respect nature and protect the environment.

Some Hani people and scholars are working to get the Yuanyang terraces listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These stairways of life are more than a spectacular cultural sight - they represent a perfect relationship between man and nature.


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